Thursday 7 May 2020

Are all comparisons odious?

The idea that comparisons are odious isn’t a new one; the first use of the phrase in English appears to date from around 1440. And as an admonition against comparing things which are unalike, or judging people against each other, it has a great deal of merit. People – governments, even – should as a rule be judged on their own merits, not by comparing them to others. So, when government ministers and their apologists complain about the UK’s coronavirus statistics being compared with those of other European countries, they have a point, especially so when they underline that not everyone is counting the same thing. They are also correct in pointing out that we don’t yet know the final outcomes, and things could still change, although their faith that that change will vindicate them looks, shall we say, ‘optimistic’ at the moment. But their point would be even more valid if they hadn’t been making the international comparisons themselves until very recently in an attempt to show they weren’t doing badly, and if we didn’t know that the country most guilty of under-reporting is probably the UK itself – the FT have estimated that the true number of deaths resulting from the pandemic is more like 54,000 than the officially-admitted 30,000. Totalitarian states like China aren’t the only ones who hide the truth behind carefully massaged figures.
However odious they may be, and whatever the difficulties in ensuring that the same things are being compared, comparisons do have a valuable role in determining whether, for instance, one approach has worked better than another. And given the advantage the UK had in that the pandemic struck after we could already see what had happened in Italy, there was every reason at the outset to suppose that a well-prepared and well-organised country (which is what the UK claimed to be) could and would avoid the scale of the disaster which hit Italy by learning from their experience. As it turned out, the country was neither well-prepared nor well-organised, and instead of mobilising immediately, the country’s leaders chose to believe that British exceptionalism could and would defeat the virus. We were well-prepared and well-organised only in the sense that our leaders ‘know’ that the UK is special and exceptional and that everything the UK does is, by definition, ‘world-class’, ‘world-leading’ and ‘the very best’. When their definition starts from the assumption that no-one can ever do any better, there is never going to be any predisposition to study what happens elsewhere and learn from it – they simply assume that other people are having a torrid time because not only are they not British but they didn’t come here for advice first. When reality doesn’t match their preconceptions, they simply redefine reality by denying the validity of any comparisons, hiding the truth, and doubling down on the lies and bluster.
Those who rely on the UK media for their news will be largely unaware of the incredulity with which most of the rest of the world has looked on as the UK stumbles from mistake to mistake. Wee Ginger Dug has compiled a few links here which show just how astounded people elsewhere have been by the performance of Johnson and his pals. Things are unlikely to change, though. Perhaps they really do believe their own propaganda, in the same way that Trump genuinely believes himself to be a genius. When you ‘know’ something to be true, mere evidence and facts are not going to change that. Some of us already know that jingoism is no more a cure for the virus than is snake oil, but the snake oil marketing business is far from being as dead as it should be.

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